Nice is no stranger to hordes of cyclists descending on its wide boulevards and seaside promenades. It already hosts the Paris-Nice professional bike race – the “race to the sun” that takes place every March. On Tuesday, it’s the turn of the Tour de France, which arrives to take over the city for a day-long team time trial. Nice will certainly be in festive mood; it’s already erected a Tour Village on the seafront with giant screens, food stalls, exhibitions and bike simulators for children.
The riders will congregate under the palm trees of the Promenade des Anglais, one of France’s most appealing waterfronts. This 7km walkway – created by 19th-century British expatriates as a cunning job-creation scheme for an influx of unemployed migrants – is wide enough to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, roller skaters and pretty much anything else on two wheels.
Start at the western end by the unmistakable pink dome and white Belle Epoque façade of Hotel Negresco, which celebrated its centenary this year. Head east along the promenade, watching the waves roll on to the pebbly beach where the waterside restaurants have set out their sunloungers.
If you haven’t been tempted to stop for a swim, in about half an hour you’ll see on your left the Ponchettes, old fishermen’s cottages that have become either highly prized homes or gallery spaces. Walk under the arches to take a look at the Cours Saleya, home to Nice’s most colourful food and flower market. (If you’re there on a Monday, you can browse bric-a-brac instead.)
Head back under the arches and turn left along the Rue des Ponchettes until you reach the imposing cliff face of Colline du Château (Castle Hill), where there’s a free lift to the top if you don’t fancy the 92m climb up the winding stairs. There hasn’t been a castle here for about 300 years, but what remains comprises cool green parks, children’s play areas, a refreshing waterfall and glorious views of Nice.
Follow the stone signs for Place Garibaldi and eventually the zigzagging road leads to this elegant square that makes you think you’ve crossed over the border into Italy. Its 18th-century arcades are in a simple palette of pale yellow and green, in contrast to the riot of colour you’ll encounter around the corner in Vieux Nice. Depending on the time of day, pop into Serain Cappa at No 7 (00 33 4 93 62 30 83) for pastries or grab a table at Café de Turin at No 5 (00 33 4 93 62 29 52; cafedeturin.fr) for some of its celebrated oysters.
Now you’re at the entrance of Vieux Nice, that colourful warren of narrow lanes, tiny squares, quirky shops and food stalls. You can cheerfully get lost among the alleyways crammed with tall townhouses in every shade of ochre and terracotta. Start in Rue Pairolière, a narrow street just beyond Café de Turin and its neighbour, La Civette Garibaldi. Appetising smells drift from stalls selling Provençal fast food, such as socca (chickpea pancakes), accras (balls of deep-fried cod) and petits farcis (stuffed vegetables).
If you’ve managed to stay on Rue Pairolière, you should find yourself on Rue Droite, where one of Nice’s most delightful surprises hides. At No 15, Palais Lascaris (00 33 4 93 62 72 40; www.palais-lascaris-nice.org; shut Tuesday) is a Baroque townhouse that has been turned into a museum of antique musical instruments, all housed within exquisite interiors with frescoed ceilings. It is free and definitely worth a quick visit.
Carry on until you reach Rue Rossetti, where you turn right into Place Rossetti and, tucked away in the furthest part of the square, is an intimate spot for lunch. Lu Fran Calin (00 33 4 93 80 81 81; lufrancalin.com) is typical of the Niçois mixture of Provençal and Italian food, with heaped plates of ravioli for €10.90 (£9).
Next, you head down towards Cours Saleya where you come to the broad expanse (well, broad for Vieux Nice) of Place du Palais. Here, the imposing Neoclassical Palais du Justice dominates the square. If you want to taste what’s probably the best ice cream in the city, look out for the subtle façade of Oui Jelato (00 33 4 93 54 10 32) at 5 Rue de la Préfecture. It really is sublime. Unsurprisingly, it’s run by an Italian.
Soon you find yourself back in Cours Saleya where the market will have packed up by about 1.30pm and the surrounding restaurants will have colonised the outdoor space. Turn right past the lavish 19th-century opera house down Rue St-François-de-Paule and up Rue de l’Opéra to finish the walk in Place Masséna, Vieux Nice’s largest square. Traffic here is kept to a minimum, with only trams and bicycles allowed free rein. It’s also the setting for many of Nice’s festivals, of which there will be many even after the Tour de France has moved on.
This summer, Nice is expecting to unveil its latest green project, the Promenade du Paillon. This 12-hectare urban park starts near Place Garibaldi and continues through Place Masséna to the Jardin Albert 1er on the Promenade des Anglais. Originally nicknamed “la coulée verte” (green corridor), the walkway follows the course of the river Paillon that has been covered up and will be a welcome green space for the city. The Niçois weren’t sorry to see the old bus station and its equally hideous car park being torn down to make way for it – already is a vast improvement to the centre of town.
Mary Novakovich travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which flies from London City, Heathrow and Gatwick to Nice. The airport is also served by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Stansted, Gatwick, Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Luton and Newcastle; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from East Midlands, Leeds/Bradford and Manchester; Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk) from Birmingham; and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Exeter and Southampton.
Hotel Windsor (00 33 4 93 88 59 35; hotelwindsornice.com) has double rooms designed by local artists as well as a swimming pool set in exotic gardens. Doubles from €128 (£108), room only.